All of us—at least those of us with children—currently use or have at some time received or bought a piece of colorfully-decorated melamine dinnerware. Many consider melamine dishes the perfect choice for kids because they are practically unbreakable.
I have a set of melamine mixing bowls from Williams-Sonoma which I use regularly–although one did break in a freak accident last year, and until very recently, I used melamine dishes for most of my kids’ meals.
A friend who visited recently said, “I’m surprised YOU (meaning you who professes to be a health and safety fanatic) are serving food to your kids on melamine!”
I confess that while I had heard of health issues concerning melamine, I thought the issues were around the improper care and use of melamine (i.e., they should never be used in the oven or microwave) and as a food additive. I made a mental note to do more research, hence this blog posting.
First, what is melamine?
Melamine is an “organic,” nitrogen-rich industrial compound, created from one of three materials: urea, dicyandiamide or hydrogen cyanide. The hard and sturdy melamine resin is created by combining melamine with urea and formaldehyde. Melamine resin is fire and heat resistant, durable, and versatile. It is used in the manufacture of floor tiles, whiteboard and numerous kitchen items, including melamine dishes.
By all appearances, melamine dishes seem incredibly practical and convenient. They are dishwasher safe, light, nearly unbreakable and can be molded into various shapes and designs, which can be brightly colored or printed.
Some of the first dangers concerning melamine appeared in 2007 and 2008 when it was reported melamine had been added to certain brands of pet foods and infant formula as a cheap filler. There were reports of illness and deaths from renal failure in the animals and babies that had consumed melamine-contaminated food. Shortly after this melamine “scare,” the first concerns were raised about whether melamine could leach into food from dinnerware made from melamine resin.
Melamine resin is fixed and unchanging unless it is exposed to excessive heat, which is why you should never put your melamine dishes in your oven or microwave. Excessive heat can make the plastic unstable and allow the resin to decompose back into its original elements, several of which are highly toxic.
What also is poorly understood is “synergistic toxicity” or the combined effects of consuming a product, for example bread, made from wheat that was grown with a melamine-based fertilizer (remember, it’s nitrogen-rich!), served with milk that has added melamine (increases protein levels), on melamine dinnerware which has possibly become unstable due to improper use or handling.
Note: The levels of melamine in dinnerware are considered safe by the FDA, but this does not account for others sources that can build up melamine in the body.
Although melamine dinnerware seems incredibly convenient—with it’s bright colors and nearly unbreakable design, why risk your or your children’s health?
If you and your family use melamine dishes, but eat only organically grown food, then presumably your sole concern lies with the condition of your dishes. However, as I stood examining my own melamine dishes for hairline fractures or scratches, knowing I have never put them in the oven or microwave, I quickly decided it wasn’t worth the risk. Bamboo, BPA-free plastics, stainless steel and glass or china are safer alternatives. I found some nice-sized, colorful china dishes at Crate & Barrel (link).